10 Unknown Explorers Who Blew Open the Door to the American West for the Entire World

10 Unknown Explorers Who Blew Open the Door to the American West for the Entire World

Larry Holzwarth - December 18, 2017

“Go West Young Man” is a phrase usually attributed to Horace Greeley, although some historians argue that Greeley was repeating a phrase which first appeared nearly fifteen years earlier. Regardless, it seems that the advice was unnecessary. From the first appearance of the Europeans on the North American continent, explorers were moving westward. They brought back tales of vast prairies, mountains which dwarfed the Appalachians of the East, and mammoth rivers and lakes. Despite their tales of the savagery of some of the American Indians encountered in their travels, pioneers and settlers were soon pushing west behind them, and the explorers were pushed further west, as well as to the north and south.

Some were driven by simple wanderlust. Others were hired to explore lands for sale and settlement. Some were in the pursuit of furs, trapping was a lucrative business from the earliest colonial days, with European markets hungry for the furs of American beavers, fox, and mink. Hides were valuable too, made into leather for shoes, gloves, and clothing. Trapping expeditions explored the lands surrounding the waterways where beaver were to be found across the upper Midwest to the west coast throughout the early 19th century. Long hunters too explored for new areas rich with game to provide success on their expeditions.

10 Unknown Explorers Who Blew Open the Door to the American West for the Entire World
The Corps of Discovery led by Lewis and Clark was one of the earliest expeditions devoted to exploration. Wikipedia

Here are ten lesser known explorers of America’s western lands throughout its history.

10 Unknown Explorers Who Blew Open the Door to the American West for the Entire World
This portrait of Smith was supposedly drawn by a friend from memory after the explorer’s death. Wikimedia

Jedediah Smith

Jedediah Smith was a fur trapper and explorer who was one of the first Americans to cross the Mojave Desert and the Sierra Madres (traveling from west to east). He was the leader of the first known exploration of the country between the Great Salt Lake and the Colorado River by white men, as well as one of the first to explore the California coastline up to Oregon on land. Smith was well known for his exploits in his lifetime, and maps he drew for the US Government remained in use by the US Army for years after his death.

Smith was born in New York State near present day Bainbridge and relocated to western Pennsylvania with his family when his father encountered legal troubles. He worked on a Lake Erie freighter in his teens, meeting many returning hunters and trappers from the far west who used the Great Lakes and adjoining rivers as their highway back to eastern civilization. He read Lewis and Clark’s journal as a young boy (a book which he was said to carry with him on his travels for the rest of his life) and developed the skills of a woodsman. In 1817 the family moved west again, to Ohio.

In 1822 Smith joined a fur trapping expedition known as Ashley’s Hundred and by fall was at newly built Fort Henry near the mouth of the Yellowstone River. After spending the winter trapping in Montana, Smith and others of his party were attacked by Arikara Indians, the first of three Indian massacres Smith would survive in his lifetime. He also survived a mauling by a Grizzly bear, in which his ear was torn off, to be sewn back on by one of his companions at the time, Jim Bridger.

Smith made two trips to California. He was arrested under suspicion of being an American spy on the first trip by the Spanish authorities. He was arrested again on the second trip, this time for unauthorized entrance into Spanish territories. On both occasions he was released after being vouched for by English speaking residents of the territory. After leaving California the second time he journeyed to the Oregon Territory which by treaty was jointly occupied Americans and British. In 1829 Smith enjoyed a successful trapping expedition into the lands of the Blackfeet Indians.

Smith’s fur trading company, which he had formed with Jim Bridger and others four years earlier, was sold in 1830. Smith warned the US Government in Washington of British activities in Oregon aimed at agitating the Indians against Americans and prepared a group of men to take action. When Washington didn’t respond Smith led this group on an expedition towards Santa Fe. While traveling on the Santa Fe Trail Smith’s party was attacked by Comanches and he was killed, at the age of 32.

10 Unknown Explorers Who Blew Open the Door to the American West for the Entire World
Simon Kenton was a leading trapper, hunter, explorer, and fighter in Kentucky and Ohio. Wikipedia

Simon Kenton

Simon Kenton was born in Virginia and at the age of 16 fled to Kentucky, mistakenly believing that he had killed a man in a fight over a girl. Changing his name to Simon Butler he explored the Ohio River country in what is now West Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio. When he learned that the man had survived he returned to using his real last name, and developed a reputation among the settlers as a formidable woodsman.

Taken prisoner by the Shawnee in 1778, after being hit with a war club with force sufficient to leave a one inch dent in the top of his skull, he was subjected to tortures intended to kill him. His survival puzzled the Shawnee, who sent him to their village near Sandusky for further torture. There he was adopted into the tribe after the intervention of a British agent. Kenton escaped and made his way back to Kentucky, joining George Rogers Clark’s expedition as a guide in 1778.

As a prisoner of the Shawnee Kenton has seen the Mad River Valley in Ohio and impressed with the land there he began exploring it, claiming several tracts beginning in 1788. The land north of the Ohio remained dangerous for settlement until the Northwest Indian War of 1793-94, in which Kenton served. After the war Kenton formed a group of settlers from Kentucky and led them to the area around present day Urbana, Ohio

In Kentucky, Kenton was a friend and occasional hunting partner of Daniel Boone. He was present at the siege of Boonesborough and is credited with saving Boone’s life during the Shawnee attack. Kenton explored much of the land north of the Ohio in what is now Ohio and Indiana, always with an eye for areas suitable for sale to land speculators. His business dealings were somewhat hampered in his early days as he did not learn how to read or write until he was thirty years old, in 1785.

Kenton was present at the Battle of the Thames, where Tecumseh was killed in 1813. According to Allan Eckert, following the battle Kenton was asked to identify Tecumseh’s body and he deliberately pointed to another to avert mutilation of the dead chief. This story is likely apocryphal, British prisoners were used to identify Tecumseh’s body. Kenton died in poverty in Urbana in 1836 at the age of 81. He had been known to the Shawnee as the “white man who could not be killed.”

10 Unknown Explorers Who Blew Open the Door to the American West for the Entire World
Ned Beale was the personal friend of Presidents and pioneers. Legends of America

Ned Beale

Born in 1822 and named Edward Fitzgerald Beale, Ned Beale led an adventurous life which gained him fame throughout the nation. He is now all but forgotten. Beale was a personal friend of Ulysses S. Grant and Buffalo Bill Cody. He was both a general in the army and a Lieutenant in the US Navy, serving with distinction in the Mexican War in California, where he became friends with explorer Kit Carson. He left the Navy in 1851, after making six coast to coast trips carrying dispatches to Washington. He then settled down to be a property manager in California.

In the late 1850s he was appointed by President Buchanan to build a road from Fort Defiance, in New Mexico, to the Arizona-California border. Beale’s Road, which was built in part using camels, ran over 1,000 miles. Beale’s Road was so well planned and followed the shortest possible route that it was used as the basic layout for the famed Route 66 and later Interstate 40 for much of its distance. In Beale’s day it was widely used by wagons, even after the coming of the Transcontinental Railroad, a project to which Beale had previously contributed.

Beale had been selected to serve as the Superintendent of Indian Affairs in Nevada and California by President Fillmore in 1853, and on the way to his new post he was tasked with surveying Colorado and Utah for a route for the then proposed Transcontinental Railroad. Beale was appointed as a brigadier general in the California State Militia, allowing him to negotiate treaties between the Indians and the federal troops from a respected military rank, rather than as a civilian.

The Transcontinental Railroad was a treasured project for later President Lincoln, who appointed Beale as Surveyor General of California and Nevada, undoubtedly with plans for the railroad. Beale used Chinese workers to widen a pass used by a stagecoach line which operated between San Francisco and St. Louis. He succeeded in widening the cut at the same time he reduced the grade, easing the burden on mules and horses.

Beale’s work as a surveyor alone required extensive exploration of terrain from Colorado to California and south to Mexico. He led or accompanied many of the work parties dispatched on the missions which he set out to accomplish. After the United States Army gave up on its experiments with camels (they scared the horses) Beale purchased some and kept them on his Tejon Ranch.

10 Unknown Explorers Who Blew Open the Door to the American West for the Entire World
William L. Manly was one of the first men to cross the famed Death Valley. Wikimedia

William L. Manly

William Manly was born in New England, moved to Ohio at the age of nine, and developed his woodsman and exploring skills as a hunter and fur trapper in Michigan, Wisconsin, and as far west as the Dakota territory. He was in Wisconsin when he learned of the gold strikes in California and at the age of 29 he began an overland journey to strike it rich in the west. Manly kept a diary of his journey, which was later destroyed by fire. When he wrote his autobiography which described the trip it was after more than thirty years had passed.

According to Manly, when he reached the Green River in Wyoming he joined a party of men who rafted downstream to the vicinity of the Old Spanish Trail in Utah. Upon arrival in the area they encountered a Shoshone named Walkara, the leader of a band of Utah Indians, who guided or directed them to the area south of what is now Provo, where they encountered a group of gold seekers intent on using a map provided to follow a short cut rather than use the Old Spanish Trail. Unknown to them, the map was inaccurate.

They spent the next three weeks attempting to follow the map and reconcile its depiction with land features that could not be found. Hopelessly lost and short of drinking water, they found themselves on the edge of Death Valley, and camped at a fortuitously found spring now called Bennett’s Wells. Aware of the seriousness of their plight they decided that the entire party could not possibly make it out of their dilemma, and sought volunteers to find a way out. Manly volunteered, along with another man named John Haney Rogers.

Rogers and Manly walked across the Mojave Desert, surviving on jerked meat and small canteens of water, for two weeks before they reached Rancho San Fernando, roughly 30 miles from Los Angeles. After obtaining horses and a mule and sufficient provisions and water they retraced their steps, arriving at Bennett’s Wells a full month after leaving it, to find all of the party but one still alive. Both of Manly’s horses had died during the return trip. They were the first known white men in North America to traverse Death Valley.

Manly made a brief trip to Wisconsin before he returned to California for good in 1851. By 1859 he had mined enough gold to purchase a small farm, where he died in 1903. The dried lake in Death Valley, Lake Manly, is named for him, as is Manly Peak and Manly Beacon. Rogers settled on a farm in Merced, California, where he died from mercury poisoning in 1906. As mercury was used to extract gold from low grade ore it is likely his quest for gold eventually killed him.

10 Unknown Explorers Who Blew Open the Door to the American West for the Entire World
As a youth Powell rowed nearly the entire length of the Mississippi River, from Minnesota to the sea. National Portrait Gallery

John Wesley Powell

John Wesley Powell was born in Mount Morris, New York before eventually settling in Boone County Illinois. He was a rower in his youth, and explored several of the tributaries of the Mississippi River system. He once rowed the Ohio downriver from Pittsburgh to the Mississippi and then up to St. Louis. On another trip he rowed from St. Anthony Minnesota down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. He studied for seven years at Oberlin College and what became Wheaton College, but never graduated with a diploma.

Powell lost his right Army serving as a Captain with the Union army at the Battle of Shiloh in 1862. He stayed with the army and served through the rest of the war, including at the Battles of Atlanta, Nashville, and Vicksburg among others. After the war he declined a permanent position with an Illinois natural history museum in order to explore the American West, although he did teach at Illinois Wesleyan University.

Powell organized and led several expeditions in the west, the first with students and his wife, in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. In 1868 he was one of a party which was the first to ascend to the summit of Longs Peak. Later expeditions traveled through the canyons of Utah down the Colorado River. During this expedition three men vanished from the party, likely killed by Paiute Indians. On a later exploring trip Powell included a missionary who was well regarded by the local tribes to ensure a safe passage for the explorers.

Following his expeditions Powell documented his findings and in 1881 become the Director of the US Geological Survey. He also served at the Smithsonian Institution as the director of the Bureau of Ethnology. Powell viewed most of the land in the West to be unsuitable for farming except when near natural sources of water and supported the use of most of the land for open grazing. This was in opposition to the railroads, who had obtained vast land tracts as part of their compensation for building the roads and wanted to sell most of it to farmers.

The railroads used their powerful influence to prevent Congress from adopting Powell’s views regarding land use and state boundaries. Powell’s view was proven to have been largely correct when the Dust Bowl occurred in the 1920s and 30s, leading to the failing of many farms with insufficient irrigation. Powell died in 1902 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

10 Unknown Explorers Who Blew Open the Door to the American West for the Entire World
Fur trappers in the west held annual rendezvous’ to replenish supplies and sell their furs. Wikimedia

John Henry Weber

John Henry Weber was born in Denmark, emigrating to the United States to work for the Ordnance Department of the United States Army. He worked as a clerk at the lead mines owned by the government in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri. While there he met numerous successful fur traders and became friends with one named William Ashley. In 1822 he joined the Ashley-Henry Fur Company on a trapping expedition, a group which included Jim Bridger and Jedediah Smith.

After their arrival in the area of the Yellowstone River the party split into independent brigades, with Weber assuming the leadership role of the brigade which explored the Bear River region before spending the next few years trapping and hunting in the area of northern Utah and southern Idaho. Weber dispatched Jim Bridger down the Bear River in the winter of 1824-25 to determine its course, a trip in which Bridger came upon Great Salt Lake.

The following spring a portion of Weber’s brigade encountered a British trapping expedition led by Peter Ogden Skene. In a dispute over trapping rights, enough American employees Skene were convinced to leave the British company and join Weber’s brigade that the remaining British withdrew to Snake River.

Weber wintered in the Great Salt Lake region in 1825-26 assigning his name to the Weber River. In the spring he attended the 1826 fur trapper’s rendezvous, an annual event in which the trappers met to sell their furs and replenish their supplies to remain in the mountains. Following the 1826 rendezvous Jedediah Smith, with two partners, bought Ashley’s share of the company. Ashley returned to Missouri, where he later entered politics.

With his friend no longer with the expedition, Weber too returned to Missouri. The name he placed on the Weber River led to the naming of Weber Canyon as well as Weber County. Eventually these place names led to the name Weber State University, otherwise there was no relation to the trapper. Weber returned to the employ of the US Government, rising to the rank of Superintendent of US government lead mines in Galena, Illinois before he retired in 1840. He died in 1859, a suicide.

10 Unknown Explorers Who Blew Open the Door to the American West for the Entire World
William Dunbar was a longtime friend of Thomas Jefferson, although they never met, maintaining a correspondence for several years. Wikimedia

William Dunbar

William Dunbar was born in Scotland in 1750, educated at Kings College in Aberdeen, and went to America in 1771, settling in Philadelphia and setting himself up as a merchant. In 1784 he and his business partner, John Ross, established a plantation near what became Natchez, Mississippi on what was then Spanish territory, with a land grand from Spanish authorities. After buying out Ross in 1800 and obtaining additional land from Spanish authorities, Dunbar had over 4,000 profitable acres planted in indigo and cotton. He named his plantation, The Forest.

Dunbar became noted for inventiveness, which he applied to his plantation management, inventing a screw press for the manufacturing of cottonseed oil. He was the first to bale cotton in squares. He was interested in meteorology and astronomy, and built an observatory. In 1799 he was introduced to Thomas Jefferson – then vice-president – in the form of a letter to Jefferson from a mutual friend, and Dunbar and Jefferson opened a correspondence.

When Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery to explore the land obtained through the Louisiana Purchase it was not the only expedition he sent into the west. There were three others, the Red River Expedition of 1804, the Red River Expedition of 1806, and the Pike Expedition of 1806-07. Jefferson assigned the task of organizing the expedition to southern Louisiana Purchase lands to Dunbar. Jefferson assigned another Scot, George Hunter, as second in command.

Dunbar’s party of fifteen men left in October 1804 and explored the region of the Red River and the Ouachita River. Hunter was a noted chemist, and his presence led to the first chemical analysis of the Hot Springs of Arkansas. The expedition noted and documented the region’s flora and fauna, obtained specimens which were sent back to the always interested Jefferson, and explored portions of the Ozark Mountains. They also irritated the Osage Indians, and were met with hostility by Spanish authorities in the area (although Louisiana had been sold by the French, it was largely administered by Spain, from which Napoleon had claimed it).

The hostility was one reason the journey was curtailed, returning in January of 1805. Jefferson was already planning a second expedition and had obtained the funding for it from Congress. Called the Great Expedition, Jefferson again tasked Dunbar, who organized the second journey. Dunbar used his experiences and discoveries from his first trip to plan and equip the second, but failing health prevented him from leading it. It too, was cut short by Spanish authorities.

10 Unknown Explorers Who Blew Open the Door to the American West for the Entire World
Bunnell Point in Little Yosemite is named for Lafayette Bunnell, who is credited for naming Yosemite. Wikimedia

Lafayette Bunnell

Lafayette Bunnell was born in Rochester, New York, in 1824 and lived in Buffalo and later Detroit in his youth. He was the son of a doctor and the nephew of another, and studied to become one himself. His uncle encouraged him to seek his fortune in the west. When the War with Mexico began Bunnell enlisted in the Army, serving as an orderly. Bunnell worked in the American hospital in Cordova during the war, and mustered out after its end.

Deciding to follow his uncle’s advice, and spurred further by the confirmation of the news of gold being found in California, Bunnell headed west. Bunnell traveled through Texas and Mexico to the California gold fields. He first saw Yosemite on his trip to the gold fields from a distance, but in describing it to miners he could find out nothing about it other than it was in Indian territory.

The gold rush of 1849 drew over 40,000 to the region and pushed much of the Indian population from the areas where they resided. Conflicts between small parties increased throughout the year 1850. In December 1850 the Ahwahneechee and Chowchilla tribes raided a post on the Fresno River. The California State Militia formed a battalion in Mariposa County to retaliate. Bunnell was a member of the battalion which was mustered by the Mariposa County Sheriff with command given to James Savage, whose post had been the one raided.

The battalion crossed the Merced on its route to attack the raiders and on its way spotted Yosemite in the distance. Later Bunnell was to confront the massive rock now known as El Capitan. Bunnell was inspired to have the men vote on a name for the valley, and is thus credited with having named it Yosemite.

Bunnell Point in Little Yosemite Valley is named for Bunnell, who again served in the Army as a surgeon during the Civil War. After the war he lived in Minnesota, where he wrote several books, including Discovery of the Yosemite and the Indian War of 1851 Which Led to That Event in 1880.

10 Unknown Explorers Who Blew Open the Door to the American West for the Entire World
According to his companion’s, Gregg died when collapsed from starvation and fell from his horse. Wikimedia

Josiah Gregg

Josiah Gregg was born in 1806 in Tennessee and grew up mostly in Missouri, plagued by bad health. By the time he was twenty-four he was stricken by what was then called consumption and advised by his doctor to go to a dryer climate he travelled to Santa Fe. Over the next ten years he made several trips back and forth between Santa Fe and Missouri, establishing himself as a successful trader. He also learned to speak Spanish, and published a book entitled Commerce of the Prairies, chronicling his adventures and business successes, in two volumes in 1844.

During the War with Mexico he served as an interpreter with the Arkansas Volunteers, after which he obtained a medical degree. A lifelong collector of plants, many of them from Mexico, he discovered many previously unknown specimens on his wanderings. In 1849 he joined in the Gold Rush, traveling to California by ship, arriving at the Trinity River that autumn.

In November 1849 Gregg and a group of seven men left the mining camp on the Trinity River, determined to chart unexplored territory to the north until they reached the line of latitude on which lay Trinity Bay, after which they planned to head due west to reach the bay itself. Misinformed of distances by Indians, the group was badly undersupplied.

Over the next several weeks the group endured an epic journey during which they quickly ran out of food and were forced to subsist on game and whatever vegetation remained during the onset of winter. Expecting a journey of about eight days, they struggled through the unexplored territory, including the Redwood Forest, before finding the ocean. Shortly after they struck Trinity Bay, now called Humboldt Bay, at a point which became the town of Bucksport. It was named for the member of the party who first spotted the bay, David Buck.

The party split in two for the journey back to San Francisco and Gregg’s group followed the coastline. Out of food and exhausted, Gregg died on the way, and was buried by his companions in an unmarked grave. Well over forty plants in the Southwest United States and Mexico carry the designation greggi in his honor.

10 Unknown Explorers Who Blew Open the Door to the American West for the Entire World
It was said of Jim Bridger that he carried a map of the west in his head. American Heritage Center

Jim Bridger

Jim Bridger was the son of a Virginia innkeeper. Born in 1804 Bridger went west in the early 1820s as a fur trapper, and was one of the two men who volunteered to stay with Hugh Glass after he was mauled by a grizzly, to bury him after he died. They abandoned the still alive Glass, who survived his ordeal and later did not take vengeance on the pair, although he did catch up with Bridger near the Bighorn River.

Bridger explored the Yellowstone area, one of the first men of European descent to do so and was credited with being the first to see the Great Salt Lake, during the winter of 1824-25. Bridger believed that he had found an inlet of the Pacific due to the salt water. Whether he was the first American to see the Great Salt Lake is now disputed.

Bridger married at least three times. His brides were either Flathead or Shoshone Indians, at least two died. He is known to have had multiple children, some of whom were sent to eastern relatives to be raised. By the 1850s his knowledge of the western lands acquired during his trapping expeditions led him to be a hired guide for several wagon trains and for the Army.

During his visits to Eastern cities Bridger developed a reputation for story telling – tall tales – which contributed to his legend in later years. Bridger’s tales of petrified forests and geysers in the west – both of which were later proven to be true – were amplified with stories of petrified animals and birds populating them.

Bridger’s legacy is one of exaggerated strength and endurance, which he helped to establish with his tales to newcomers to the west. Numerous places are named for him, including the Bridger Mountains and Fort Bridger in Wyoming, and the town of Bridger, Montana.